Parent and child relationships - in black and white
God Help the Children, Toni Morrison, Chatto & Windus
Published 04/05/2015 | 02:30
'They fuck you up, your mum and dad." Philip Larkin's famous line could easily sum up Toni Morrison's latest novel, God Help the Child.
In Beloved, Morrison's most famous, Pulitzer prize-winning novel, parental brutality is perpetrated in the name of love; Sethe murders her young daughter to protect her from savagery at the hands of white slave owners.
In God Help the Child, Morrison's latest novel, brutality by a mother is inspired by hate.
On the opening page we're told how Sweetness's grandmother, on realising she could 'pass for white' (she had the right kind of hair), cut off all contact with her children for the rest of her life.
Sweetness herself, under the influence of shadism - as the preference for paler skin is known - takes a deep dislike to her own child, Lula Ann within an hour of her birth, after the baby turned "Midnight black".
"She was so black she scared me," she says, and blames her daughter for all subsequent racism she suffers, and for the dissolution of her marriage.
Set in present day California, Lula Ann has remade herself. Having changed her name to Bride and adopted the habit of only wearing white, her blackness now marks her out in a positive way. She is a beauty, and has carved a successful career for herself in the cosmetics industry. It is an outwardly impressive, but ultimately fragile life. Two events precipitate the collapse of her world.
Her boyfriend Booker, who for six months had offered Bride an easy, unquestioning, sheltering sort of love for the first time in her life, suddenly leaves, telling her "you're not the woman I want".
In her brash, rather childish fashion she tries to brush off his rejection, but it devastates her.
"He was part of the pain - not a saviour at all, and now her life was in shambles because of him."
The adult Bride is also haunted by an injustice perpetrated as a child in an attempt to gain her mother's favour. A clumsy attempt to right the situation backfires spectacularly, ending with Bride being viciously beaten.
Morrison's work often features the supernatural. Here, Bride's body begins to physically regress to a pre pubescent state; she sheds body hair, earring holes close up, her breasts disappear and she loses weight.
Her mental turmoil has taken a physical manifestation, "she was changing back into a little black girl." Fate is dragging her back to deal with the issues of childhood, necessary if she is to stand a chance at real happiness.
Bride embarks on a journey to find Booker and confront him over his desertion. In the process she suffers an accident which forces her to recuperate in the home of white hippies whose lack of material concerns, and kindness to their adopted, and formerly abused, child Rain are unlike anything Bride has experienced.
Like most of the characters in this book, Bride is often unsympathetic; shallow, and lacking in empathy, but her experiences go some way towards pushing her towards growth.
Child abuse, and whether it is possible to overcome the damage wrought by one's parents or other adults in the formative years, is the main theme of the novel.
Booker himself, the wayward boyfriend, doesn't make an appearance until over halfway through the book, so we are left to wonder whether he is the wastrel we see through some characters eyes, or in fact the hero of the piece.
When we do eventually encounter Booker and learn his back story - he is also labouring under the after effects of a harsh childhood, it becomes clear that ultimately, Bride and Booker may prove each other's opportunity to overcome the past.
It is testament to Morrison's excellence as a writer that a book that is largely focused on the abuse of children is such compulsive reading.
"What you do to your children matters. And they might never forget". Sweetness realises, too late.
With Bride and Booker, Morrison seems to suggest that this lesson may have been learnt in time by the next generation.
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